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Email marketing playbook for nonprofits

In addition to doing work for the greater good, nonprofits must stay focused on generating support from their current and potential donors.

Constant communication with your supporters is the key to long-term success. As a nonprofit organization, you need to tell your story, and then write your partners into that story. Show them that they are a part of your movement and that they matter. And guess what?

There's no better way to connect with your supporters than through email.

Email marketing is the most personal form of outreach, which is why it generates the highest return on investment (ROI), compared with social media, direct mail, or even paid search. 

A solid email marketing strategy is essential for every nonprofit organization, and the goal of this Email Marketing Playbook is to give you the knowledge, skills and tools to get the most out of your campaigns. And we’ll be sharing plenty of email marketing tips along the way!

Let’s get started with the most important fundamentals of nonprofit marketing. 

Email can help nonprofits set up a direct communication channel with their supporters. This creates a unique opportunity to engage with donors and raise money, whilst also building awareness around everything they are fighting for. 

Nonprofit email marketing campaigns let you send targeted, frequent and personalized campaigns to each subscriber. This is especially important in a day and age where most millennials prefer to donate online (and as we all know, millennials are now officially the largest generation), so if you can send a direct link to their inbox, there’s a good chance that they’ll convert! 

Now it’s time to get ready for a whole heap of nonprofit email marketing tips. First up, we’re going to talk about how to choose the email marketing service provider that’s right for you. Next, we’ll show you every type of email for nonprofits that you can send, before diving into the best practices to keep in mind for your nonprofit email marketing campaign. Let’s jump straight in!

Choosing the right email marketing service provider

How do you decide which email marketing tool to pick? 

Nonprofit email marketing campaigns need a solution that matches their budget, whilst still delivering sophisticated, responsive and powerful campaigns. This is where we’d like to throw our hat into the ring! Starting with our free plan, you can already make the most of our quick and easy-to-use features, including: 

Plus, nonprofit organizations receive a 30% discount on MailerLite's paid plans. All you have to do is sign up here, and indicate that you are a nonprofit when you are completing your profile to be eligible for the discount. It's that simple!

Building relationships in email content marketing is sort of like building relationships in real life. You have to get the balance right and know when it’s time to listen, and when it’s time to share. It’s a fine art! You want to keep your subscribers engaged with relevant content, but you also want them to become active participants in the conversation, and to consider donating.

So how do you start writing about things that will interest your donors and supporters? We look at this in more detail with our guide on crafting email content that people will care about.

As a nonprofit, you can nurture your relationship with your email subscribers through a variety of different newsletter types. 

1. Set up automated welcome emails

Don’t be shy! By using email automation to set up a welcome email series, you can orientate and familiarize your supporters with your goals, so reach out to them straight away. This will help you to stay top of mind, and establish your relationship with your subscribers. If you need a little inspiration, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best welcome email examples.

We like this welcome email from the WWF nonprofit organization, complete with an embedded video of different wildlife. This instantly captures WWF’s vision, and it adds a nice interactive element to the email. Check out our article to find out more about how to embed a video in your email newsletters.

WWF nonprofit welcome email GIF example

2. Show appreciation by sending thank you emails

Sometimes, all you have to do is show some appreciation. Let your email subscribers know how much their continued support means to your nonprofit organization. 

The Breast Cancer Network of WNY uses this email to thank their supporters for their fundraising efforts. They also take the opportunity to gently nudge those who might have missed the campaign, and who might still want to give.

Breast Cancer Network of WNY nonprofit newsletter example - MailerLite

3. Share what you're doing in blog posts and articles

People love to see how their support has helped your organization. They want to know that their fundraising efforts have made a difference, and see your organization in action! 

If you have a nonprofit blog (and you probably should), send out email newsletters with links to your latest blog posts and articles. You could even set up an RSS campaign so that your subscribers are updated automatically when you upload a new blog article. 

Notice how Freely in Hope shares a weekly summary of their activities in their newsletter. 

Freely in Hope nonprofit newsletter example

4. Share case studies and success stories

Sometimes, your supporters might forget that they’re helping real human beings! Remind them how their contributions are helping, by sharing stories that show how much good they’ve done. We love this email campaign by Charity Water. It uses the image and name of a person they’ve helped, and then elaborates with a success story on how her life was improved, thanks to their donors. 

nonprofit email example case studies

5. Share your milestones and goals

Make it easy for your supporters to care about your work by sharing your goals and milestones with them. Show them that your nonprofit organization is made up of real people, who are all working together towards a shared mission.

Just One Africa does this in the email below, complete with a photo of their key workers having fun. They share more information about what they’re trying to achieve together, and they include their fundraising targets so that they can continue making a difference. 

Just One Africa nonprofit newsletter example - MailerLite

6. Let your supporters know about any upcoming events

Give your subscribers a sneak peek at your calendar! Whether you’ve organized a fundraiser, an online conference, or a volunteering trip, it’s a good idea to let your supporters know in advance.

We love this nonprofit newsletter example by the Boy Scouts of America. In light of the COVID-19 situation, they went ahead and created a virtual adventure day for their subscribers, where everyone could participate from the safety of their homes. We’re also big fans of the countdown timer, to add urgency. We even wrote an article about using email countdown timers effectively to increase conversions.

Boyscouts of America nonprofit newsletter guide - MailerLite

7. Release your annual report

The information you share is powerful, and it can inspire action from donors and potential donors alike. Annual reports build trust in your nonprofit organization, as supporters can see exactly how their donations are being used. Being transparent about your victories, challenges and finances is a good way to raise money for your cause, as it can be a deciding factor when donors are evaluating which organization to support. 

A good rule of thumb is to make your annual report as visually appealing and easy to read as possible. Lots of images and infographics can make the data more accessible to donors. 

We really like CARE Australia’s minimalist design in its annual report. They include several core pieces of data, presented in different infographics, followed by a clear call to action (CTA) to encourage their supporters to read the report in more detail.

CARE Australia nonprofit newsletter example yellow collage - MailerLite

From annual reports to blog articles, there are so many different types of content out there that you can share with your supporters. 

Next, let’s have a look at the best practices you should adopt when doing nonprofit email marketing. 

We’ve talked about the different types of newsletter content that you can share in your nonprofit email campaign. Next, we’re going to explore 7 email marketing strategies that will make your nonprofit newsletter the best it can be. 

The first step to success is building your subscriber list. It might seem obvious, but the more people your email campaigns reach, the greater the impact they’ll have. Opt-in forms allow your first-time website visitors and social media followers to leave you their email addresses. These forms are most effective when placed in high visibility areas, where you can share your values and mission. 

You can grow your list with different kinds of opt-in forms, such as:

Embedded forms

These can be placed anywhere on your website, and they give visitors an easy way to sign up for your email newsletters. Signup forms should always include an incentive, even if it’s something as simple as, “Keep up to date on all our latest news!” Here’s an example of an embedded opt-in form on the Invisible Children website.

nonprofit email list building email opt-in green CTA

Pop-up forms 

When done right, pop-ups work really well. Their attention-grabbing nature makes them the perfect tool for collecting your email addresses on your website. In fact, we’ve even written a whole blog post about different pop-up examples and types.

Look at how this pop-up from Partners in Health immediately captures attention with a compelling image and a statement of their mission.

nonprofit email list building pop-up yellow

Combine your pop-up with a clear CTA like this one, and you’re well on your way to adding new subscribers to your list (yay)!

Social media integrations

Your followers on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter already want to hear from you, so why not get them on your email list as well? You can include links to landing pages on your profile pages or embed forms on Facebook.

For example, in this Facebook post, Oxfam shares a video detailing the impact of carbon inequality. Their followers can then select the ‘Learn more’ button. This guides them to the full article, and it includes an embedded form where they can sign up to receive Oxfam’s email newsletter. 

Oxfam Facebook post nonprofit with captions

MailerLite offers a Facebook integration that enables you to include an opt-in form directly on your pages. You can also take a look at this guide, which explores how email marketing and social media work together for good. 

Offline opt-in app

Sometimes the best opportunity to collect email addresses is at fundraiser events or meetups. This is particularly the case if your nonprofit has less of an online presence. We understand this challenge, which is why we created an email opt-in app for mobile devices, such as tablets. This makes it easy to collect emails and obtain permission on the go. This way you can grow your email list wherever your supporters are. The email addresses you collect are then automatically linked to your MailerLite account, so there’s no need to export them. 

nonprofit email list building offline opt-in on ipad - MailerLite

But regardless of whether you collect subscriber information online or offline, just make sure that your forms are GDPR compliant

👉 Tip

In addition to opt-in forms, check your CRM or donor management platform to see if you have some of the email addresses of your supporters. You can import them to your email list as long as you have permission to email them.

Interested to learn more about building a supporter and donor email list? We cover how to grow a high-quality email list in this guide.

One of the features that allow email marketing platforms to deliver such great returns is that you can achieve a level of personalization that no other channel can come close to. In fact, personalized emails have higher open and click-through rates than non-personalized emails. But keep in mind that personalization goes beyond just adding a subscriber’s name into the subject line. Personalization also includes sending highly targeted content to the right people. 

Your subscribers are different, so the emails you send them should also be different. This is where segmentation comes in. Email marketing segmentation means grouping together subscribers who share similar traits so that you can deliver more direct messages to them. 

Nonprofit segmentation audience persona - MailerLite

For example, if some of your supporters are millennials, you may send them a different email compared to what you would send to your older supporters. 

The more your email campaigns match your audience, the better they’ll perform. To properly segment your email list you’ll need data on your subscribers. You can get this from your content management system (CMS), which is the database where you manage all of your website content. You can also find it on your donor management platform, or even from your opt-in forms. 

👉 Tip

Segmentation doesn’t need to be complicated. For nonprofits, start out using general segments such as

  • Subscribers who haven't donated

  • Individual donors

  • Corporate sponsors

If you’d like to learn more, have a look at our ultimate guide on how to personalize your email marketing campaigns.

One of the best parts of email marketing software is that you can nurture your relationships with subscribers automatically. All you have to do is set up a simple email marketing automation. This means that each subscriber can receive emails at different phases of their support. Newer supporters need to hear different stories, compared to those who have been with you for years, for example! The beauty of this feature is that it automates the whole process, saving you time to focus on other crucial tasks. 

👉 Tip

Don’t send out mass emails to all your supporters. Create a welcome email series using autoresponders that help introduce your supporters to your mission and nurture them based on their understanding of the nonprofit organization.

You can have great content to send your supporters, but it’s useless if your subscribers don’t open and read your emails. Just sending the email won’t guarantee that it gets opened, read, or even clicked. This is why knowing a few email design guidelines can help you maximize your email’s impact. 

Here are some tips to keep in mind:

Put extra thought into your subject line

One of the most crucial parts of your email is your subject line. Yet many people make the mistake of writing something quick, just before the email gets sent out. Your subject line should instantly capture your subscribers’ interest, while clearly setting expectations of what’s in the email. 

The right subject line can have a big impact on your open rates. Our customer, Active Youth, increased their open rate from 30% to over 40% by putting more focus on their subject lines. You can read their case study here.

We cover subject lines in more detail in this ultimate guide.

So where do you start, when you’re preparing a subject line for your nonprofit newsletter?

First, write out what the email is about, and highlight the main benefits. Next, try these 3 techniques to spice it up! 

1. Personalize it: Add names, segment your subscribers by geographic location, or add other types of personal information that will catch your subscriber's eye. 

Personalized subject line example - MailerLite

2. Incite curiosity: Everyone loves a bit of mystery. Ask a question or leave something to the imagination.

Incite curiosity subject line example - MailerLite

3. Add urgency: Make it time-sensitive so that people will be motivated to open it right away.

add urgency from company subject line - MailerLite
Here are a few examples of email subject lines from nonprofits:
  • Patagonia - Volunteer your skills for our planet

  • WE - It’s not too late to give

  • Charity Water - This #GivingTuesday, make history with us!

  • UNICEF - Water is opportunity

  • American Red Cross - Give. It’s never been easier.

Once you've written a good subject line, you now need to make sure that the body of your email clearly conveys what you want your readers to know.

Make the email easy to read

Most people scan your email before actually reading it. If they see that it is relevant to them, they’ll go back and invest more time. This is where writing a strong headline comes in. 

The best headlines are easy to understand, and they state exactly what readers will get from reading the email. Don’t try to be too creative or clever. The clearer your headline is, the better. 

Patagonia uses a very prominent headline in this email. It’s clear, attention-grabbing and explains the purpose of the email in very simple terms. They also stick to brand colors which are easy to read, as well as a font size which is easy on the eyes!

nonprofit email marketing best practice example - ReallyGoodEmails

Break up the text

No one wants to read dense paragraphs. Break up your emails with lots of white spacing. You can do this by increasing line spacing, adding bullet points and using subheadings.  

The Suva Marathon Club set up a series of races to celebrate International Women’s Day. In their nonprofit email newsletter below, you can see how they have broken down the information into bullet points, increased the line spacing, and left plenty of white space. 

Suva Marathon Club nonprofit newsletter example - MailerLite

Make your CTA prominent

Your call-to-action is the main purpose of your email. It's what lets you convert the attention you've already captured into meaningful action.

For your CTA to work well it has to be visible—meaning it should be large and should also contrast with the rest of your email. It should also be simple to execute.

Learn more about how to create a CTA that works in another Ultimate guide.

Look at the prominent CTA in this email from the American Red Cross. Notice how they made the CTA clear and convenient using the words "Schedule Now"—meaning it’s more likely to be clicked.

american red cross nonprofit email marketing best practice example

Use captivating imagery

We learn better with visuals than with words. Adding images to your email can be a powerful way to make them more engaging.

Take a look at this email newsletter from Paterson Habitat for Humanity, which provides homebound and at-risk populations with food and other essential supplies. Sure, that sounds ok in writing, but just wait ‘till you see the pictures! In their newsletter below, they share photos of their workers and volunteers out in the field, distributing supplies. This shows their organization in action, and it certainly packs a punch. Using imagery like this will bring your nonprofit campaign to life.

Paterson Habitat for Humanity nonprofit newsletter example

Not sure how or where to start with your newsletter design? We've got you covered in our guide on how to design emails people will read.

Charity Water makes great use of imagery in this online fundraising email, clearly showing the joy online donations bring to real people.

nonprofit email marketing best practice light blue background design

How your email looks definitely matters. Luckily you don't have to be a design guru to create great-looking emails like these. If you use MailerLite, you already have access to tons of well-designed email templates you can use for your fundraising campaigns. Or you can create your own and save them in your personal gallery.  

👉 Tip

Instead of hoping people will click through to read your content, add the important details to your email so more people will hear what you have to say. Don’t be afraid to add more content to the email. Just be sure to break it up in a way that is easy to read.

You can't improve what you don't measure. Imagine your email campaign as a funnel made up of different stages. For a standard email campaign your funnel metrics would consist of:

  • Opt-in rate

  • Deliverability

  • Open rate

  • Click-through rate

email marketing funnel - MailerLite

Once you start analyzing your campaign data you can pinpoint the parts of the funnel that need help. Start recording your metrics so you can determine your benchmarks. For nonprofits, you can use our industry benchmarks, which we'll talk about later.

Image or no image? This subject line, or that subject line? CTA positioned over here, or over there? 

It’s hard to know exactly how your supporters will respond to different elements of your newsletter. The options are endless, and sometimes overwhelming. But the good news is that you can take out some of the guesswork with A/B testing.

If you want to test different versions of your nonprofit newsletter to see which one performs best, then A/B testing is for you. An A/B test will send two variants of your nonprofit email campaign to two subscriber segments at the same time. It will then let you know which group responded with the highest open and click rates, thereby allowing you to identify a ‘winner’ between your two newsletter versions. 

If you’d like to learn more about this, check out our ultimate guide on email marketing A/B testing made simple.

If you’ve ever wondered how many emails you should be sending per week, or per month, then you need to set up an email cadence. Our data shows that the median number of days between emails sent by nonprofit organizations is 10.65 days. We’ve also tapped into our 2020 data to find out the best time to send your email. While you can use these studies as a rough guide for your digital marketing, it’s also important to do your own research and get to know your supporters, to find your own optimal sending frequency.

  • Open rates: 27.56%

  • Click-through rates: 5.13%

  • Unsubscribe rates: 0.18%

👉 Tip

Clean your list every few months to ensure you remove all inactive subscribers. Your open rates, click-throughs and unsubscribe rates will improve dramatically.

Great! We've covered the important nonprofit email marketing best practices and now we'll show you some examples of nonprofit emails that work.

SeedMoney conveys a clear message in their email below. Notice how the image they use also serves as a visual reminder of what their supporters are contributing to. Then they drive their point home with a large CTA directly below the image.

nonprofit email newsletter example seed money

In this great nonprofit newsletter, 4th Wheel shows us one of the ways you can nurture your supporters by sending a follow-up email and sharing important milestones with them.

nonprofit email newsletter example 4th wheel sharing milestone

Here, SFIAF uses a captivating image, a clear descriptive headline, a short video and a CTA you can't miss to ensure their email is as engaging as it can be.

nonprofit email example san francisco international arts festival

This email from Charity Water manages to include vivid imagery, a touching story and a clear CTA. And it couldn't come at a better time than on Father's Day.

nonprofit email example Charity Water

To see more of our favorite newsletter examples, you can take a look at our nonprofit newsletter examples gallery, where you’ll find lots of stunning campaigns to draw inspiration from. It’s like visiting the Louvre... except it’s for email newsletters!

As a nonprofit, email marketing can have a tremendous impact on your organization's growth and fundraising activities. With email, you can more effectively reach your supporters and build strong, long-lasting relationships with them.

Remember that growing your email list is the first step, but just as important is strengthening the relationship between you and your subscribers with personalized email content. Don't forget to analyze your campaigns so you can remove the bottlenecks holding you back.

Does your nonprofit organization currently send email newsletters? If not, we hope this guide motivates you to get started!

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Editor's note: This guide has been updated with new examples and refreshed guidance on email marketing for nonprofit organizations.